How “Doing a Bad Job” May Just Be “Good Enough” to be Great

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Oct 3, 2016

Demand for speed has overtaken all other priorities, it seems; whether it’s a program, a deliverable, a result, or a change, leaders want it NOW or YESTERDAY. And that’s understandable —- most leaders are themselves under tremendous pressure to deliver results. Fast.

Understandable too is the reaction to that demand. Get busy! Do stuff! Hurry up! And many people do get busy, as fast as possible, in an attempt to respond to the demand, check the box, and move on to the next item in the pile of “stuff to do” that has become commonplace in knowledge work. It conjures the classic episode of I Love Lucy, where Lucy is working in the chocolate packaging assembly line, and becomes overwhelmed by the volume of candies coming through on the conveyor belt.

Given our frenetic work environment, it may then come as a surprise that we advocate some highly uncommon phrases that  need to catch on. They are: Good enough for right now,”Do a bad job,” and “I don’t know.” Before you (or your boss) judge these phrases as invoking laziness, stupidity, or incompetence, consider the opposite of these statements: “Make it perfect,” “Don’t screw up,” “Have all the answers.”

We all know that the pace of business and change is intense. The world of customers has shifted radically, and businesses are trying to adapt and catch up to those demands. But if the world has changed around us, then why would we assume that the same approaches that used to work, still do?

If businesses are trying to adapt to the changing demands of customers, doesn’t that mean that there are going to be a lot of new requirements and realities to define? Perhaps it might mean that we have to get together with other people in other functions, and really figure out how all these new customer demands are affecting who we hire, what employees need to learn, how they continue their development, and what’s being measured.

We need to work differently

It is in this spirit — the need to “figure stuff out” and realize that we have to work differently in order to deliver results — we advocate new phrases that help to set expectations on just how much discovery, experimentation, improvisation, and rapid iteration has to be done before we know what the “answers” really are. Moreover, we can’t do this stuff in a vacuum, we have to consult with and get input from people in other functions, people whose perspective matters.

Here are two examples of responses to business demands that needed speedy or fast resolution. The results were anything but:

  • A large networking technology company issued directives over a period of three years to train different types of sellers on products as fast as possible. At the end of that period, there were 38 different groups who claimed to do “training,” but the products themselves hadn’t gained any traction with customers.
  • A major provider of productivity software wanted to create a new-hire sales training program with a compressed time line. The L&D team, in its attempt to quickly provide “answers,” simply grabbed as much online content as they could and declared the program “done.” The new hire sales managers looked at the content and rejected it as irrelevant and useless.

What really happened here, and why would we say that our “uncommon phrases” were potentially not in play?

In working with these organizations, we determined that in both cases, these organizations succumbed to pressure to have all the answers, skipped their discovery and cross-functional collaboration, and leapfrogged past understanding what new requirements had emerged from their changing customers. They decided that what had worked in the past was the way to go now, and did not want to rock the boat or show that they didn’t know what they were doing.

We would argue: the pressure to deliver perfection, polish and prescription by NOW or YESTERDAY is actually a recipe for doing quite the opposite. By attempting to achieve perfection, we can practically guarantee that this will lead to shortcuts, leave out critical thinking, and ignore essential requirements. You can extrapolate the result: wasted effort, big mistakes, and limited, long-lasting results. In aggregate: a mountain of random acts.

Begin with “I don’t know”

Instead, let’s imagine that during these initiatives teams and stakeholders were enrolled in a process that assumes something critically important: We don’t know the answer, but we have a way to get there.

In doing so, the leaders are creating an environment of creative thinking, in which:

  • A sales manager draws a whiteboard sketch of how different groups of sellers interact with customers. The sketch is laughably unreadable, but through discussions with customer service, L&D, and product leads, a picture emerges. That sales manager Did a bad job with the sketch, but who cares? Together the group created something new that they all own.
  • A lead curriculum developer who specializes in instructor-led training shows all of the different courses available to customer service agents, to a group of stakeholders and training managers saying, “This is what we’ve developed. But we don’t know how it really lands with the learners. And we are missing input from the trainers themselves, as to what we could be doing better. This is something we want to fix in the process.” That developer just said, “I don’t know” to the key stakeholders, opening the door to the solution by getting their involvement in the problem. Those same stakeholders and managers can now offer time and resources on an ongoing basis, to close the loop.
  • A learning leader is working with her team to put together a plan on how to respond to a recent directive involving hundreds of new hires. After a day of white-boarding, they have a series of stages that don’t feel totally right, but they know that as they socialize it, it will change. That initial whiteboard is Good enough for right now as a way to give additional stakeholders or leaders something to react to, so that the plan becomes a vehicle that others can weigh in on — versus the be-all, end-all “answer” to something that is so complex, it would be impossible for one small group of people to answer.

In a world where so much has changed for customers, we can only assume that more has changed for us and our organizations. In order to figure out the new answers, it requires the adoption of new thinking that embraces the uncertainty of now, but the possibility for the future.

So workers, go ahead, do a bad job. Your business needs you to!